Price is the sticking point for EVs

- The electrification of the automobile has been called the auto industry’s “moon shot,” an analogy that works because of both the technology involved and the cost to develop it.

Automakers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort with no promise that it will lead to affordable battery-powered vehicles anytime soon — or any guarantee people will buy them once they’re available.

All of the major automakers are racing to put EVs in showrooms as early as next year, and they’re spending money like sailors on shore leave to do it. General Motors has spent about $1 billion developing the Chevrolet Volt. Chrysler wants to invest $448 million in its electric vehicle program to build cars like the Circuit. Elon Musk’s personal investment in Tesla Motors tops $75 million.

The Apollo program cost more than $100 billion in today’s dollars, and as Ron Cogan, founder and editor of Green Car Journal and greencar.

com notes, there was no imperative to produce a reasonably priced consumer product. Not so with electric vehicles - the whole point is to sell cars.

The Obama Administration is betting heavily on the technology, having recently approved almost $8 billion to help automakers retool factories to produce EVs and other fuel-efficient vehicles. Another $16 billion will be doled out next year.

“What people overlook is that accomplishing ‘big picture’ programs like Apollo require accepting the concept of unlimited spending to achieve the mission,” Cogan says. “Current levels of unprecedented federal spending notwithstanding, electric cars are not an exclusive answer to future transportation challenges and consumers will not be willing to buy them at all costs.” Cogan is not some EV-naysayer wedded to internal combustion. He’s been covering EVs and alt-fuel vehicles since 1992 through his award-winning magazine Green Car Journal.

He spent a year living with the pioneering General Motors EV1 electric car, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an alt-fuel car he hasn’t driven. But despite their promise of eco-friendlier mobility, battery-powered vehicles remain cost-prohibitive and will for some time to come, he says.

“There’s a shroud of denial that regularly excludes the real cost of battery electric vehicles from discussion of their considerable benefits,” he says. “I understand first-hand the advantages of an electric car with its high-efficiency, zero localized emissions and petroleum free operation. But I also recognize the importance of an affordable cost so most people can buy them, and that’s a crucial issue that’s rarely, if ever, discussed. People should be asking why.”

Cogan says it isn’t the cars to blame. Several automakers proved in the 1990s that it was possible to build a full-fledged electric vehicle with the amenities and comfort consumers expect, and the relatively few people who drove the EV1, the Toyota RAV-EV and Honda EV Plus generally raved about them. There are even some RAV-EVs on the road today.

What the automakers couldn’t do, Cogan notes, is develop a battery pack that costs less than $20,000 to $30,000. That’s still the case today, which is why the electric vehicles in the pipeline have price tags approaching $50,000.

General Motors is frantically trying to bring the Volt in for less than $40,000 when it goes into production late next year, and even then expects to lose its shirt. The Mitsubishi iMiEV city car is as small as its $50,000 price tag is large. And even the Coda, a four-door, five-passenger family car with all the pizzazz of a Hyundai Sonata, will set you back $45,000 when it goes on sale in California next year.

Early adopters and hardcore EV advocates will gladly pay that much, but will the rest of us pay $15,000 to $25,000 more for a car that runs on electricity? Cogan doesn’t think so and says EVs should be considered mid- to long-term solutions until automakers — and the battery makers they rely upon — can bring costs down to a level competitive with vehicles propelled by internal combustion.

Until then, he says, more efficient gasoline cars, clean diesel vehicles and hybrids will comprise the majority of cars sold even as EVs become an increasingly common sight in showrooms.


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